New Zealand’s picturesque capital, Wellington, has 500,000 people and Sydney around 4.5 million but the difference doesn’t faze new Sydney FC CEO, Tony Pignata. He is also not fazed about being the seventh CEO of what should be one of the A-League’s marquee clubs and is confident he can help bring stability to the club.
“There’s a lot of parallels between the two but the scale is obviously different,” Pignata says. “When I started at Wellington [Phoenix] five years ago, the code was dead in New Zealand. It was difficult to attract sponsors and members, and we had less than three months to get ready for the next A-League season.
“At Sydney FC, we have a brand that is known. We already have a base of members to build from. There’s a feeling that the club has lost its way a bit, and we have four months to get ready for the next season. I am pumped!”
One of his first priorities will be to help plug the financial gap in Sydney FC’s accounts with sponsors.
“It’s really inconceivable that a team called ‘Sydney FC’ does not have a front of shirt sponsor and that will be my number one priority,” Pignata says. “We have a good story and a good history.
“Crowds did go up last year. Membership levels are acceptable without being spectacular. But it’s important to keep the momentum going.
“I think [coach] Ian [Crook] and [football director] Gary [Cole] will be fantastic. They understand the importance of this club for the overall health of the A-League and I know Ian wants to play the style of football that our most loyal members want to see.
“Fans are much more educated and experienced nowadays. They know want they want. A nice passing game, played out from the back … if we can get that right on the field, that will help us get the attention of the educated football fan.”
For this reason, Pignata believes that if the team can ‘do the business’ on the park another big name signing isn’t necessary – which, in light of the club’s reported deficit of between $5-7 million, is probably just as well.
“I haven’t seen the detailed finances yet but I’ve read the reports about them. Obviously that’s a key focus also.
“I’m confident my experience inWellingtonwhere we put a lot of work into improving the match day experience for members and walk-up fans, where we worked with the different fan groups such as the Yellow Fever and where we engaged with the local football community had benefits for the club, which they’re still reaping.”
While careful not to be critical of any of his six predecessors, Pignata is adamant that Sydney FC needs to do more than “just send some players out for a coaching session and that’s it.”
“That’s the easy bit,” he says.
“Doing a coaching session, or attending a sign-on session, has to have benefits both ways. We want those people to come to a game, and then another and then another. In short, we want to turn fans into fanatics.”
Pignata says he wants to meet with as many clubs, associations, members and fans as possible, with an open mind, and hear ideas on what Sydney FC can do better.
“I’ll listen to everyone. I won’t be coming in from day one and making wholesale changes. The focus will be getting ready for the next season, while listening and learning at the same time.
“I come from a sales background. Members and fans – just like customers – are the lifeline of the club and they want to feel part of it.
“I’m acutely aware that some Sydney FC members feel disaffected and it’s very important that we do something about this.”
Rather than being threatened by a new FFA-backed westernSydneyteam – as had tended to be the narrative from Sydney FC until now – Pignata believes it will strengthen both teams as well as the A-League.
“Sydney and Melbourne, as cities, have a very important role in helping to build the A-League, and having the excitement of a local derby is key.
“I’m actually looking forward to working with the new team to build that rivalry and leverage it for what it’s worth. It’s a real opportunity for both of us.
“Sydney is a big city and there’s more than enough football fans for two clubs. I’m very happy to work with them off the field as long as we take nine points on the field!”
He says he doesn’t care where Sydney FC fans come from and doesn’t intend to divide up the city with Lyall Gorman by drawing a geographic line.
“People will decide for themselves whether they want to follow Sydney FC or the new team but it shouldn’t be limited by whereabouts in the city they live.”
This fits with Pignata’s views on the original, and once successful, label of Sydney FC as ‘Bling FC’.
“Look, that worked in the first year and was very successful then. In Wellington,Sydney is still referred to as ‘Bling FC’ – but it’s not, is it?”
Asked what one word he’d like to encapsulate Sydney FC twelve months from now, Pignata quickly identified “family”.
“I know it’s used a lot but I think that’s where the future lies. I want fans of any description to be part of the club, and feel part of the club.”
Pignata takes up the reins in one of the A-League’s most challenging and exciting roles on 12 June.